Driving & Renting a Car in Mexico: The Pros, Cons, and Requirements

drive rent car mexico

Renting and driving a car in Mexico is one of the best ways to see the country and get off the beaten track. While the bus system is good between major cities, it is harder to reach the little pueblos where you can really experience local Mexico.

Mexico is also full of hard-to-reach natural wonders, like the waterfalls, transparent rivers and sinkholes in Huasteca and Sierra Gorda. Many of these are not accessible by major public transport, meaning you’ll need to hire a local taxi or waste hours waiting for the next mini-bus (or camioneta) to come along.

Driving sometimes even costs about the same as public transport once you have two or more people. If you don’t feel comfortable driving, there are also great tour options and luxury bus lines.

Of course, driving in Mexico has its own challenges and dangers, which we go into below. There are also some mandatory requirements, such as insurance, but this is easy to acquire and usually affordable.

What you need to know about driving and renting a car in Mexico

  • Requirements to rent a car: a credit card, third-party liability insurance from Mexico, typically be 25 years of age, and hold a license for 2–5 years.
  • Try to avoid driving at night.
  • It pays to take pictures of dents, scratches and noticeable marks inside the car, plus make sure they are marked during the inspection. There are stories where companies try to charge for pre-existing damage.
  • If you book a car online or with a third-party provider, print out your agreement to make sure the car company honors the price and conditions you paid for.
  • Even if your price is quoted in dollars, you will pay in pesos and not necessarily with a good exchange; pay with pesos where possible.
  • If you get a parking ticket, the police may also take one license plate to make sure you pay.
  • To avoid some gas scams, check that the pump is set to zero, and watch the bills you hand over so it can’t be disputed that your 200 pesos note was 20 pesos.
  • Topes (speedbumps) have a special place in Mexico; they are often unmarked, unusually high, and sometimes in unexpected places – get ready to bounce over a few. There is usually a collection of topes at the start of any cluster of houses or small towns, plus a few more in between because… topes.
  • The ‘Green Angels’ (Los Angeles Verdes) is the public bilingual road assistance. You can call their 24-hour toll number 078 (although road service is from 9am-6pm). They may even cruise by if you are on 206 Mexican roads. They only serve paid roads. It’s a free service, you just pay for what you need (gas, parts etc.); tips are welcome though not always accepted.
  • Whatever time your online map estimates, add 30 minutes or an hour of extra driving time onto your trip (traffic, cattle crossing, slow trucks, accidents). You can also use the government ‘Point-to-point’ calculation, which even gives a gas cost estimate.
  • Military checkpoints are common in drug states. While it looks intimidating, the officers are usually friendly and just wave you through.
  • If you’re on a highway and there is a parallel road, you may need to enter it to take any upcoming turnoff.

Is it safe to drive and rent a car in Mexico?

You’ve probably heard the stories about police extortion, road robberies, and other scary tales. While it would be unwise to pretend that these things don’t happen, it shouldn’t scare you off from driving in Mexico.

The key factor is that some states are safer than others, and you should exercise caution accordingly. There are many paid highways that are patrolled by police and considered relatively safe. If you adhere to the unspoken rules about driving in Mexico, you may never encounter any of the above-mentioned problems.

Probably a more common encounter will be potholes and a busted tire. But you lower your chances of this on the toll highways.

Cost to rent a car in Mexico

Sometimes you will see ridiculously low car rental prices in Mexico from $5–10 a day, up to $20-25 for a SUV. Great, right? But there’s a caveat: liability insurance is mandatory and it must be from a Mexican provider. Insurance starts from around $15–20 per day.

This means that, including service fees, taxes and any extra insurance you choose, the average price of renting a car varies from around $30–80 per day. Basically the costs can double or triple.

Still, it is normally affordable to rent a car in Mexico. However, prices have risen in recent years, especially during the pandemic when many tourists and digital workers flocked to Mexico. In high season, like Christmas, prices can rise to $100+ per day and still completely book out.

You can compare car rental companies to see who is offering the best deal, and this is a great way to get a cheap car rental.

Do you need auto insurance to drive in Mexico?

Third-party liability insurance from a Mexican provider is mandatory to drive or rent a car. This means that even if your international car insurance or credit card covers you in Mexico, it will not be accepted in the event of an accident.

Some US companies and online websites do offer car insurance for Mexico, but usually it is underwritten by a Mexican provider – in any case, make sure you check before you buy.

You can decline to pay the insurance, in which case the car company will block off several thousand dollars on your credit card for any potential damage. This usually voids this as an option for those who have daily credit card limits, such as European card holders.

However, in the absence of liability insurance, you may be detained (even in jail) in the event of an accident until you can prove that you have the means to pay for the damage. So that little piece of paper can become a valuable asset, especially if you don’t speak the language.

Can you drive in Mexico with your foreign or US license?

You can drive and rent a car in Mexico using your US or other foreign drivers’ license, plus proof of identity, usually a passport.

If you get Mexican residency, you will be required to swap it over for a Mexican license. The process is usually easy.

Do you need an international driver’s license in Mexico?

In theory, you do not need an international driver’s license for Mexico. Although, if your license is translated into Spanish, it can reduce confusion or conflict – but it is not mandatory.

Certainly, they are used to see drivers’ licenses in English and from the US, but less so if you’re from a country with a less known language.

Driving on toll roads vs free roads in Mexico

Mexico has invested a lot in its highways – and you’ll see the numerous tolls to prove it. You’ll see signs advertising the free (libre or carretera federal) and paid (cuota) highways.

Unless there is some huge traffic jam or emergency, it is worth to pay the toll roads. You get more lanes, and you quickly see how vital this is once you get stuck behind a slow truck. Even some toll roads have potholes, so you can imagine what the free roads are like.

Some say the toll roads are safer; certainly, it is more likely to find yourself alone on an abandoned free road and you may have to contend with crossing cattle. Others say you miss out on local Mexico. In any case, if you explore rural Mexico, you’ll end up on these local roads anyhow. The toll roads will just get you there faster.

The costs do add up. As of 2021, they don’t take credit cards, so make sure you have at least 500–1500 pesos in cash depending on the length of the drive. You can also purchase a ‘pase’ tag for around 100 pesos in any Oxxo, 7/11 etc. This is useful if you suddenly run out of toll money because you can charge your tag on-the-go (if there is connection).

Why you shouldn’t drive at night

Not driving at night is one of the first safety rules in Mexico: many Mexicans will warn you against it. Some will extend this to very early morning, as well, but this is more so in dangerous states or quiet roads but not, say, in Mexico City. The main idea is that less crime happens when there are more cars on the highway to witness it.

The more common risks are:

  • It is harder to see the potholes at night, especially if the road has no lights which is common.
  • Many trucks travel at night and it can be slow-going on single-lane roads.
  • There is wildlife.
  • Some cars do not have taillights.

If by any chance you do not make your destination by nightfall, do not panic. Dangerous incidents are the exception, not the norm. If you break down and cannot get help until morning, just sleep in your car with the windows up and doors locked.

Traffic bribes in Mexico

This is a debated topic. Many say don’t contribute to corruption and just demand to speak to their chief (jefe) or your embassy, or ask for the official ticket to pay later. You can also visibly write down their name, ID, patrol car number and license plate. Many officers are not authorized to make bookings, and it can scare them off.

You can also play dumb. Just say you don’t understand ‘no entiendo’ or that you don’t speak Spanish ‘no hablo Español’ until they give up. There have been reported successes with all of these strategies.

The reality is often scarier, although this depends on how much Spanish you understand. They often threaten to impound your car and detain you… basically, you get the option to ‘solve it now’ or many, many hours later. The uncertainty lies in whether they will or can pull it off, which is why many pay. But it is illegal.

The usual bribe is around 200–500 MXN, although people with more expensive cars have been asked for more. Or just not pay. The decision is yours.

If they’ve already taken your license, then you might not be left with much choice to pay the mordida (translated to ‘little bite’ and the word used for bribe). Then try to bargain. You can make excuses that you only have 100 pesos and on your way to the airport.

To clarify, in many cases they ask for a bribe when you’re in the wrong – small things like running a red light. If they are authorized to fine you, it will be inexpensive and you should ask for an official ticket.

Where to rent a car in Mexico?

Many third-party websites offer great deals. However, the conditions they provide versus what you get upon arrival do not always match. There is sometimes a miscommunication between systems and your chosen car might not be available. The car company may insist it costs more (but you can demand they honor your fee). In short, sometimes you get a great deal, sometimes you get a great argument.

Sometimes booking directly with your car company of choice is the easiest, and certainly the most secure. Most of the usual international car companies operate in Mexico – Budget, Hertz, Sixth etc.

Normally you can rock up on the day and book a car. During high season, such as Christmas and Easter, car rental companies book out. If you plan to drive in Mexico over high season, it is recommended to book in advance.

Is it easy to drive in Mexico?

There is no legal driving exam or test required to get a license in Mexico. As such, you’ll come across all sorts of driving behavior that doesn’t adhere to any norm.

These unexpected reactions can create dangerous driving situations, and certainly keeps you on your toes. This can include cars not indicating when turning or leaving a roundabout, cutting in front of you without enough space, or slowing suddenly before a corner.

Rules on how to drive in Mexico

There are some unspoken rules though:

  • If there are only two lanes, slower cars and trucks should move to the shoulder to allow faster cars to overtake. When it’s safe to overtake or to indicate they want you to overtake, they will put on their blinker (or wave a hand). However, it might also be to indicate they are turning, so you need to check ahead and guess which it is.
  • Flashing lights behind you means the car probably wants to pass and you should move to the shoulder; from oncoming traffic it means something lurks ahead.
  • Drivers use their hazard lights to indicate a traffic jam (expected) and also when it rains (confusing if you suddenly slow down expecting a traffic jam).
  • Do not leave rocks on roads (this is an official sign you might see) – just don’t do it, hmm-k?
  • Turning right on a red light is not permitted, although you’ll see plenty of people do it.
  • On multi-lane roads, there is less adherence to slow lanes and fast lanes.
  • If you don’t understand Spanish road signs, there’s this article.

Is it legal to drink and drive in Mexico?

Driving while drunk is a criminal offense in Mexico, which means you could go to prison or be detained from 20 to 36 hours.

If you end up with a drunk driving conviction, you may be restricted entry into Mexico for up to 10 years.

The Block Alcohol Concentration limit is 0.08 except in the below states:

  • 0.04: Mexico City, Aguascalientes, Chiapas, Estado de México, Hidalgo, Jalisco, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, and Veracruz.
  • 0.05: Chihuahua

Professional and commercial drivers have a 0.02 limit. More than 20% of road traffic deaths involve alcohol, so be aware when driving as well.

Driving age in Mexico

The legal driving age for Mexican residents is 18.

However, to rent a car you usually need to be at least 21, but the norm is 25 years old.

Best places to drive to in Mexico

Obviously ‘best’ is different for people. The ‘best’ roads are between major cities and tourist destinations. But where you can really discover hidden gems are in the rural areas and places with lots of natural wonders. This is when you can find your very own beach on the Oaxacan coast, or an off-the-beaten waterfall in Huasteca.

Some great road trips to drive in Mexico include:

  • Mineral Chico, Mineral Real de Monte and Huasca de Ocampo
  • Huasteca de Potosina
  • Sierra Gorda
  • Oaxaca (both around the city and along the coastline).

Best car to drive in Mexico

Most cars will handle the varied road situations you come across. It’s not uncommon to see dirt roads in rural and natural areas. But they are typically drivable and maintained as they are the only roads and what everyone else uses.

In rainy season, dirt roads can get flooded (though, usually shallow). The rain also eats up paved roads; lesser maintained roads quickly develop potholes. Plus, the locally-built speedbumps are more like mini pyramids and will scrap the bottom of a low car.

Certainly SUVs, higher-raised cars and 4×4 make this kind of driving more comfortable. It really depends on how off-track you plan to go; the roads between major cities are obviously better maintained and a small car is sufficient.

Driving in Mexico dangers

  • Internet and phone connection is non-existent in many areas. Make sure you are prepared with your maps if you are going to a rural area (and do not make the mistake of refreshing if the connection cuts out!). In areas with no phone coverage, you can walk along the road until you reach an emergency phone.
  • Some highways have reputations for bandidos (bandits), such as the locally known ‘Highway of Death’ (carretera de la muerte), which is the Toluca Highway–Carretera Nacional 134.
  • There is a scam where fake police set up a roadblock to stop you, then rob you or take your car. If a roadblock doesn’t look official (ie. no flashing lights from police or army cars), don’t stop the car.
  • Another scam is a fake broken-down car, which you can guess what happens when you stop to help.

Can you drive to Mexico in a rental car

There are “free” or “safe” zones in Mexico where you can drive with international plates without needing a permit.

You can drive a US or non-Mexican plated car in the following “free zones”:

  • within 25km of the land border;
  • the entire Baja California peninsula;
  • a defined area in the northern state of Sonora; and,
  • the southern state of Quintana Roo.

Otherwise, you need a permit.

Permit or letter of permission to drive a vehicle in Mexico

If you are leaving the permit-free zone, you can purchase a permit at the border. You can also get it online, one week to two months before your trip.

This Temporary Import Permit (TIP) will usually last the duration of your tourist or temporary visa, and you must show it upon exiting Mexico as well.

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